Monday, August 29, 2011

Caper in the woods

Jack and Murdoch traipse ahead on the trail as we return from our walk. We move slowly through the cool shade after a long trek over sun-drenched land with barely a breath of wind. I look ahead to the dirt road for signs of vehicles. It is a white line in the glaring sun rising up and away from the green grasses of the trail.

We are still a distance from the road when the fox appears at the trailhead. It skips into view as though it hasn’t a care in the world and at first I think it is a cat out for a romp in the wild. But then I notice its gangly legs and large ears and the way its tawny coat glows golden in the sun.

“Murdoch come,” I call as I watch the fox bounce sideways with its long bushy tail streaming behind it, poking its pointy nose leisurely into the raspberry bushes that line the trail.

The dogs don’t see the fox and return to my side as though they are truly obedient. I hook Murdoch to his leash, talking loudly and stomping my feet trying to alert the fox to our presence, give it a fair chance to escape. It frolics along the edge of the trail and I wonder if it is just young, unaware that it should be mistrustful of strange creatures. When it looks up, it pauses mid-skip, then begins walking towards us before it finally turns and runs back the way it came, disappearing into the woods.

At the spot where the fox has played in the shadow of the raspberry bushes Jack and Murdoch are seized by missed opportunity. They dart about the trail, frenzied and erratic yet focused, sniffing loudly and I wonder what a fox’s footprints smell like.

We stop at the swimming hole and I convince myself Murdoch is distracted enough by the stick I wave in front of his face that I let him off his leash. He plunges into the water after the stick, shattering the still surface of the pond. Then he is leaping up the steep slope and running past me, a soggy black blur streaming water behind him. I call after his retreating form as he bolts up the road and watch, deflated, as he veers sharply into the bush.

Across the road from our usual walking trail, there are other pathways into the woods, overgrown and forgotten. I stand up to my knees in weeds as the dogs flash past, half-seen like ghosts, around gray trunks and through rustling green foliage. I shout their names to the trees, then wait and get nothing but silence in return.

I pick my way back to the road and begin reluctantly to walk towards home, Murdoch’s empty leash clutched in my hand. It would be ridiculous to try and follow the dogs through the thick of the bush, I decide, but perhaps I could head them off if I join the trail that snakes through the woods of my neighbours’ property. It is a favourite route of Jack’s and I have found the dogs wandering there in the past.

I throw glances over my shoulder at the empty road as I march onward, the walking trail shrinking to a small point in the near distance. Each time I hope to look back and see Murdoch’s tiny black shape. With every step my stomach drops a bit more as I imagine him emerging from the woods in pursuit of passing cars or ATVs or bicycles.

I slip around the great metal gate that marks an entrance from the road into my neighbours’ forest. Not too far in a tangle of trees lies across the trail, marking the path of the violent windstorm that tore through our forest last summer. I tie the leash around my waist and am about to hoist myself up unto the first trunk to scale this wall of horizontal trees when I hear thundering footfalls.

I turn just as Murdoch comes flying around the corner. He is panting heavily, a great wide smile on his face. His sides heave in and out furiously and I think his lungs might burst as I clip on his leash and rest my hand on his head.

For a moment I am speechless, imagining him running down the road, a black figure against the bleached dirt, sending up plumes of dust behind him as he pounded the gravel, following my scent, choosing me over the fox. But in the afterglow of my brief flare of ego I realize it is far more likely that he lost Jack on the trail, had no idea where the fox went and decided the human, plodding in mostly straight lines, would be much easier to find.

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